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After planetless months, Jupiter returns to the evening sky

Topic: Jupiter
Article Published - December 5
by Dr. Jim Lattis, Director, UW Space Place
Jupiter in December

We haven't had a bright planet in the evening sky for the past few months, but relief has arrived! In December Jupiter finally begins to be prominent for evening viewers again. Our largest planet already rises before midnight early in the month, but by mid-month it is more than 20 degrees above the eastern horizon by 11 p.m. local time. (Purists may note that "planetless" is an exaggeration: Mars can be found low on the southwestern horizon at dusk, but its small, distant disk remains an obscure sight much dimmer than Jupiter.)

Brilliant Jupiter is the only planet among ten very bright objects, which makes for a beautiful late autumn and early winter sky, especially on a clear, moonless night. The other nine objects, most of which rise well before the planet, are some of the brightest stars in our sky. All are above the horizon well before midnight, and considerably earlier each evening as the month progresses. The brightest star of the night sky, Sirius (in the constellation Canis Major), shines only a bit dimmer than Jupiter and to the right (south) of the planet. (See illustration above.) Above Sirius are Rigel and Betelgeuse (in Orion-look for the three "belt" stars) and still higher is Aldebaran (in Taurus). Roughly halfway between Jupiter and Sirius, and somewhat higher above the horizon, is the star Procyon (in Canis Minor). Still higher are Castor and Pollux (in Gemini) and then Capella (in Auriga). Lower and considerably dimmer than Jupiter is much dimmer Regulus (in Leo).

This bright stellar background will make it interesting to keep track of Jupiter for the next few months. It is heading for opposition in early February, when the giant planet will be at its biggest and brightest in our sky, up all night, and perfect for viewing with telescopes. Learn to find it now so you can watch its rise to nighttime prominence between now and spring.

Unfortunately we'll have to wait a while to have another bright planet for evening viewing. Venus will technically be in the evening sky, but setting so soon after sunset as to make it nearly invisible. And Saturn will rise before the Sun, but in that case so close to dawn as to be nearly unobservable.

From the University of Wisconsin's "Space Place"
Villager Mall, 2300 S Park Street, Madison

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